12/31/2021 WEST SIDE STORY Area Movie Theatres
To close out 2021, I (finally) ventured into a movie theatre to “catch up” with Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story. That I found it most excellent is an understatement. That I found much of the criticism directed against it less-than-convincing is also an understatement. Before diving into why this version is worthy of your time, especially if you have seen the soaring 1961 version often or if you have seen the original stage version just as often, let me self-plagiarize some template thoughts from past reviews I’ve written about this classic work of Americana.
There is absolutely no reason West Side Story should "age" well. Its portrayal of New York street gangs "rumbling" with fisticuffs and switchblades looks just plain silly in our post "AK-47's for Everyone" ethos, with daily headlines of drive-by shootings and daily tweet-reminders of the astronomical urban body counts. It's 50's-friendly condescension towards women would make any contemporary audience cringe. It's portrayal of poverty-stricken youth "dressing to the nines" for a "dance at the gym" is simply ludicrous.
And yet, after watching Spielberg’s elegant version, which, truth to tell, addresses many (but not all) of these issues, I can only conclude that SOMETHING about this show still resonates, and, sad to say, will continue to resonate for far into the foreseeable future.
Two eras, both alike in Xenophobia
(On any stage where we lay our scene),
What here shall miss, our words shall strive to mend.
Leaving aside the compelling story, the beautiful score, the marvelous performances, let's talk about the politics. In the original libretto for West Side Story, we're shown a "turf" suffering under the twin punches of poverty and immigration. "We're out of work, because THEY'RE taking our jobs." "We're forming a gang, because THEY won't let us work." "THEY make our streets filthier!" "Our Women aren't safe around THEM." It's a hotbed of Xenophobia made worse by the authority figures and adults, who look down on all the kids as "Hoodlums" and "Thugs."
Is any of this sounding familiar? As long as we wallow in an "Us and Them" mindset -- a mindset political leaders and the pundits who cover them encourage -- West Side Story will always be relevant.
It helps that the story is "freely adapted" from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the quintessential Us-vs-Them tragedy. Tony and Maria are two young people who fall instantly in love. Both are intelligent and driven, both have jobs in a depressed economy, both have open hearts that are ready for romance. But their worlds are at war, and they are of an age where anger trumps love with tragic results.
It helps that the Bernstein-Sondheim score is jam-packed with exquisite music, much of which has become a permanent part of the "American Songbook." Yes, we (or at least those of us blinded by “emotional truth” expectations) may (at first) giggle as the gang members fall into their-ballet-friendly dance steps, but that giggling soon vanishes before the driving prologue has reached its ear-cutting climax.
It helps that star-crossed love is ALWAYS compelling, perhaps because we KNOW it is doomed, perhaps because witnessing first passion reminds us of our first heedless attractions, perhaps a little part of us is ripped out when we see the young couple ripped apart.
And all those quibbles I cited in my opening paragraph? When pitted against a story and a score of this caliber, with this much strength, they fall to the wayside like so much detritus.
So, let me first address the main criticism I have heard from friends and writers alike – the central figures of Maria and Tony are bland cyphers compared to the vibrant vitality of the supporting cast. I couldn’t disagree more. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have deepened the leading roles – Tony has spent a year in jail and is haunted by the demons within that almost led to another boy’s death. Maria is older than before – eighteen – more mature, more driven, more fearless in her quest to get what she wants. She is the aggressor in the relationship, the one who falls instantly in love and does what is necessary to win Tony.
These are more complex characters than most people expect. And, as energetically alive as the supporting cast is, their characters are “in a rut,” unchanging, unambitious, almost shallow in comparison. As played by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, (so much better than Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood were in 1961), Tony and Maria have more at stake, are less naive, are so much more than the standard ”Romantic Lead” caricatures we’ve seen before.
Another friend commented that, as much as they loved the performances overall, they were disappointed in the initial meeting at the dance, convinced Mr. Elgort “missed” that behind-the-eyes passion that should characterize “love at first sight.” Again, I have to disagree, Yes, at first, he seems more attracted than smitten, less “all in” than Ms. Zegler. But when she impulsively kisses him, you can see that passion rise like a sun, see his face light up with an instant “this is the one” realization. It was a subtle acting choice that falls outside what we’ve come to expect but is all the more effective for that.
As to the criticism that it’s hardly realistic for a couple who have just met to be so much in love, all I can do is mourn how jaded we’ve become, how less likely we are to accept such passion, such instant love. Is it really so “cool” to be cynical of instant love? Is there anyone left who subscribes to Shakespeare’s sentiment as expressed in Sonnet 116?
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
Kushner’s screenplay makes clear that Tony and Maria have a “marriage of true minds.” The brevity of their courtship is no impediment to their true connection. Let us not forget that Romeo and Juliet themselves went from total strangers to true soulmates in the span of a 14-line sonnet.
So now, to switch gears a bit. What is there about this version that makes it work, that makes it different, even deeper that versions we have seen before? After all, I subscribe to the concept that new productions of oft-told stories, oft-produced plays cannot just copy past successes but must have a “reason for being,” a reason to elevate them from “been there seen that” tedium.
First, the “turf” of the warring gangs is explicitly shown to be the area where the slums are being cleared to make way for Lincoln Center. So, the turf is actually vanishing, and, in a year (or less), all the characters will be evicted. Existential Karma aside, there will be, there can be no winners in this war. That “ups the ante” on the urgency of the struggle and adds “gentrification” to the poverty and immigration “punches” I talked about in my “template.” This also adds a visually stunning haze of construction dust to everything, and the area around Doc’s Pharmacy resembles nothing less than a bombed-out warscape.
Second, Doc is now Doc’s widow, Valentina (of course it’s Valentina), played by the incomparable Rita Moreno. She provides an example to Tony, an assurance that relationships CAN work between Anglos and Latinas. She plays a more central role that Doc did, and even gets one of the iconic songs to sing. It’s a beautiful choice that works on every level.
Third, Tony is no longer tasked with “stopping the rumble,” a naive expectation from the original that always felt contrived and false. In fact, Maria doesn’t want him anywhere near that rumble, because she knows how uncontrolled her brother’s anger can be. It is Tony that takes it upon himself to “calm down” his friends, leading “Cool” and demonstrating how Tony was the strongest of the gang, until now, even showing Riff taking the leadership away from him. Of course, it doesn’t have the frenetic post-rumble anger from the original, but it really works in its new context.
Let me also praise the many additional flourishes added by Spielberg and Kushner:
The opening “ballet” is less ballet and more Jets running amok in the barrio, showing what the neighborhood was like before the influx from Puerto Rico.
For “Maria,” we see Tony singing out at numerous tenement alleys until he finally finds Maria’s. I was always a bit suspicious of how easily he finds her home in the original.
“America” is no longer a rooftop party, but a joyful street fiesta as the characters go to work, even including the next generation of children to grow up in America.
Maria no longer works in Anita’s dress shop, but as a maid in a department store in which EVERYTHING is too expensive for her pay grade.
“One Hand One Heart” is moved to an actual church, where Tony and Maria go on an actual date.
We see Riff buy a gun from a low-life who says, “You’re beginning to look a lot like your Dad.” The gun will feature prominently in “Cool,” and is, of course, taken from the rumble by Chino.
Speaking of Chino, here he is an ambitious kid going to night school, with Bernardo doing everything possible to keep him out of gang life, making him more acceptable as a mate for his sister.
During the pre-Rumble “Quintet,” we see Maria walking home past the parading Jets, both oblivious to each other.
At the rumble, those demons Tony has been fighting come out, and he beats the stuffing out of Bernardo, despite Bernardo being a trained boxer. This is all before the tragic inevitability of the rumble’s conclusion. I also liked the setting in the salt warehouse as opposed to “under the highway.”
West Side Story is a superb addition to the pantheon of movie musicals, every bit as good as (if not better than) the 1961 original. It is filled with a cast with incredible acting and musical abilities, with energetic choreography by Justin Peck that recalls Jerome Robbins’ original without slavishly imitating it. And it is quintessentially Spielbergian, with all the elegant visuals, pace-setting editing, and emotional intensity we’ve come to expect from his work.
It is, indeed, one of my favorite movies of the year.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #WestSideStory)